The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 17, 2012

2012 Sunbelt Conference Preview

The Sunbelt Conference has been the lowest-rated conference every year since its inception, but the gap has narrowed quite a bit in the last few seasons.  In fact, had we not brought the Vintage rating into the equation this year, The SBC would have moved out of the basement for the first time.  Taking just the regular PiRate Rating into account, the Sunbelt mean rates .62 points ahead of the WAC.

 

Four new teams have ascended to the ranks of the Football Bowl Subdivision of Division I this year.  One of those four is a new member of this conference.  Welcome to the South Alabama Jaguars, a long-time member of the SBC in other sports.  Their coach is former Alabama Crimson Tide star receiver, Joey Jones.

 

Last season, Arkansas State used an explosive hurry-up, no-huddle offense to sweep its conference slate and win the Sunbelt title for the second time.  The Red Wolves lost the GoDaddy.com bowl 38-20 to MAC champion Northern Illinois and finished with a 10-3 record.

 

Then head coach Hugh Freeze capitalized on his first season at the helm to grab the Ole Miss job. 

 

Another first-year coach, Mark Hudspeth, guided his Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns to their first winning record since joining the SBC.  UL won the New Orleans Bowl to finish 9-4.

 

Florida International was the consensus pick by the media to repeat as league champions, but the Golden Panthers finished fourth in the league.  FIU still earned a bowl bid and lost to Marshall in the Beef O’Brady’s bowl.

 

One more team became bowl eligible, but lost out in the selection process.  Western Kentucky, picked to finish in the bottom third of the league (but picked by us to be the surprise team and contend for a winning record) lost its first four games, but then won seven of their last eight, losing only at LSU, to finish 7-5 and alone in second place in the league standings at 7-1.  The Hilltoppers lost by four points to league champ ASU, but by the end of the season WKU was the best team in the conference.

 

Troy and Middle Tennessee, the two former kings of this league suffered through losing seasons, and it sets up a great race for 2012.

 

At the League’s Media Day last month, the preseason poll was released, and Florida International was the overwhelming favorite to regain the title they lost last year.  Here is how the vote went:

 

   

Votes

Pos

Team

1st Pl

Total

1

Florida International

5

92

2

ArkansasState

2

85

3

Louisiana

2

81

4

Western Kentucky

1

70

5

Troy

0

60

6

Louisiana-Monroe

0

47

7

Middle Tennessee

0

46

8

North Texas

0

36

9

FloridaAtlantic

0

23

10

South Alabama

0

14

South Alabama is ineligible in this transition year

 

The PiRate and Vintage ratings bear out similar results, but in a slightly different order.

 

Here is a look at each rating

 

The PiRate Rating

Pos

Team

PiRate

1

Western Kentucky

92.0

2

Florida International

92.0

3

Louisiana

89.6

4

ArkansasState

88.6

5

North Texas

86.0

6

Louisiana-Monroe

85.5

7

Troy

83.5

8

FloridaAtlantic

75.8

9

Middle Tennessee

75.1

10

South Alabama

73.0

  SBC Mean

85.56

 

The PiRate Vintage Rating

Pos

Team

Vintage

1

Western Kentucky

94

2

Florida International

93

3

Troy

91

4

Louisiana

89

5

ArkansasState

87

6

Middle Tennessee

87

7

Louisiana-Monroe

85

8

North Texas

84

9

FloridaAtlantic

82

10

South Alabama

78

  SBC Mean

87

 

 

Team

Arkansas State Red Wolves

               
Head Coach

Gus Malzahn

               
Colors

Scarlet and Black

               
City

Jonesboro, AK

               
2011 Record              
Conference

8-0

Overall

10-3

               
PiRate Rating

88.6

               
National Rank

100

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

87.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

107

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

5-3

Overall

7-5

 

Gus Malzahn could have been the Vanderbilt head coach last year, but an eleventh hour backroom decision kept him at Auburn for one more year.  Now, Malzahn tries to take over at Arkansas State, where former coach Hugh Freeze guided the Red Wolves to the 2011 SBC championship.

 

Conference Player of the Year Ryan Aplin returns to pilot the offense, and for a short time, it appeared that he would be blessed with a former two-time 1,000-yard rusher from the SEC.  However, former Auburn star Michael Dyer was denied eligibility for this season.

 

Aplin should have some decent receiving targets, but Malzahn may take more advantage of Aplin’s wheels than Freeze did.  Whereas ASU passed for close to 300 yards in 2011, look for the Wolves to run the ball more this season.

 

Defense is this team’s Achilles Heel, as the unit was decimated by graduation.  All three units will need to rebuild, and we believe opponents could gain an additional 50-60 total yards per game and up to a touchdown more per game this season.

 

Still, Malzahn has a conference title contender as long as Aplin stays healthy.

 

 

Team

Florida Atlantic Owls

               
Head Coach

Carl Pelini

               
Colors

Red, White, and Blue

               
City

Boca Raton, FL

               
2011 Record              
Conference

0-8

Overall

1-11

               
PiRate Rating

75.8

               
National Rank

117

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

82.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

119

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

1-17

Overall

2-10

 

It was a sad swan song for former coach Howard Schnellenberger, as FAU did not have the horses to compete in the SBC last year.  The Owls wore the collar in league play and managed to squeak by UAB late in the year to win just one time.  FAU was outscored by an average of three touchdowns per game in conference play, and were outgained by 130 yards per game.

 

New coach Carl Pelini arrives from Nebraska where he was his brother Bo’s defensive coordinator.  He won’t see anything resembling the “Blackshirt Defense” from Lincoln.

 

Pelini became the DC at Nebraska in 2008, and in his first year in Huskerland, NU improved the defensive numbers by almost 10 points and 130 yards per game.  His teams are noted for aggressive pass defense, and it would not be a surprise if the Owls’ pass defense improves by 20 or 30 yards per game this year.

 

The problem is on the other side of the ball, as FAU just couldn’t block anybody last year, and the offensive line does not appear to be ready to make a giant leap forward.  Additionally, Pelini plans to install a spread offense and run the option, something this roster is not equipped to handle successfully.

 

The Owls are going to take their lumps again this season, but the 2012 schedule gives them a chance to double their win total.

 

 

Team

Florida International Panthers

               
Head Coach

Mario Cristobal

               
Colors

Blue and Gold

               
City

Miami, FL

               
2011 Record              
Conference

5-3

Overall

8-5

               
PiRate Rating

92.0

               
National Rank

89

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

93.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

93

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

6-2

Overall

7-5

 

The Sunbelt has two co-favorites this year in our opinion.  Florida International is definitely one of those two high-echelon teams.  If the Panthers can get a full season similar to what quarterback Jake Medlock did in his handful of 2011 starts.

 

Running back Kedrick Rhodes is the lone 1,000 yard rusher returning to the league, and he figures to be the leading rusher in the conference this season.

 

The FIU passing game will have to replace the school’s top ever pass receiver, as T Y Hilton used up his eligibility and departs after grabbing more than 70 passes and gaining more than 1,000 receiving yards.

 

As good as the offense is, the defense will be even better this year.  The Panthers return 17 of their top 18 tacklers from a year ago, including the entire back seven starters from a defense that was rather stingy last year. 

 

The conference race should be decided in a handful of key games this season.  FIU plays at Louisiana in late September, hosts Arkansas State on the following Thursday, and hosts Western Kentucky in late October.  Winning two out of those three should give them the conference championship, while winning one out of three could still give them a chance to share the title.

 

 

Team

Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns

               
Head Coach

Mark Hudspeth

               
Colors

Vermillion and White

               
City

Lafayette, LA

               
2011 Record              
Conference

6-2

Overall

9-4

               
PiRate Rating

89.6

               
National Rank

95

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

89.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

104

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

5-3

Overall

7-5

 

Mark Hudspeth has been a proven winner wherever his whistle has resided.  He built North Alabama into a Division II power, and then he joined Dan Mullen’s staff at Mississippi State and directed the passing game.  In his first year in Lafayette, the Ragin’ Cajuns improved by large numbers in the passing game, and UL tripled its win output from the year before.

 

Blaine Gautier was the top benefactor of the new offensive wizard.  He was a completely different player running the new offense, and the Cajuns improved by 10 points per game.  Gautier easily finished first in the league in passing efficiency, and more of the same is to be expected in his senior season.  UL should have the top offense in the league this year, and the Cajuns could top 35 points per game.

 

The questions are on the other side of the ball, where UL experienced heavy losses from 2011.  The front seven is an uncertainty this year, especially up front where three new starters must be found in the trenches.  If former Georgia tackle Jalen Fields can recuperate from surgery (he is out for the season opener against Lamar), and if former Ole Miss end Delvin Jones can be cleared to play this year, UL should be just fine up front.

 

UL has the advantage of having the league’s best kicking weapon.  Brett Baer is almost a sure thing inside 50 yards.

 

In what should be a tightly-fought race, we think the Cajuns might fall one game short of grabbing a piece of the 2012 Sunbelt title, but that is one game closer than last year.

 

 

Team

Louisiana Monroe Warhawks

               
Head Coach

Todd Berry

               
Colors

Red and Gold

               
City

Monroe, LA

               
2011 Record              
Conference

3-5

Overall

4-8

               
PiRate Rating

85.5

               
National Rank

107

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

85.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

113

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

3-5

Overall

3-9

 

This is a program that always seems to come up a game or two short from a breakthrough season every year.  The Warhawks have regressed the last two years, and this could be a pivotal year for Coach Todd Berry.  Like his rival in Lafayette, ULM should be improved on offense but take a step back on the stop side, a year after improving the defensive numbers by one full touchdown per game.

 

Quarterback Kolton Browning does not rank up there with Gautier and Aplin, but he is as good as any other signal caller in this league.  Browning is a dual threat, and if he stays healthy taking all the punishment he will get as a runner, he could top 275 yards per game in total offense.

 

The rest of the offense is capable but not flashy.  The running game should average around four yards per attempt, and the passing game should produce close to 250 yards per game.

 

The ULM defensive line will be a liability this year, and the second line of defense may not be much of an asset.  There is some quality in the secondary, but without a viable pass rush, their numbers could take a step back.

 

ULM has a tough out of conference schedule this year with games against Arkansas, Auburn, and Baylor looking like sure losses, and a short trip to New Orleans to play Tulane gives the Hawks a chance to win one time outside the league.

 

 

Team

Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

               
Head Coach

Rick Stockstill

               
Colors

Blue and Gray

               
City

Murfreesboro, TN

               
2011 Record              
Conference

1-7

Overall

2-10

               
PiRate Rating

75.1

               
National Rank

119

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

87.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

108

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

4-4

Overall

5-7

 

It was a long year in Murfreesboro in 2011, and not just on the gridiron.  A long, continued black eye over the building of a Moslem mosque divided the city and brought national attention to this large bedroom community of Nashville.

 

The Blue Raiders did not divert attention away with their worst showing of the decade.  The defense could not get off the field, and the offense could not succeed having to play catch-up early and often.  Wins over lowly Memphis and Florida Atlantic were overshadowed by losses to Louisiana Monroe and North Texas by a combined 101-21!

 

Expect the Blue Raiders to bounce back some this year, but don’t plan on seeing this team play a 13th game.  Middle Tennessee has a long way to go to get back to where they once belonged.

 

Logan Kilgore is a serviceable quarterback, but he will not carry the offense on his shoulders.  This team needs a quality running game to give Kilgore a chance to succeed through the air.  Jeff Murphy should see playing time in the pocket and could eventually displace Kilgore.

 

In 2009 and 2010, when the Raiders went to back-to-back bowls, the running game was potent.  It was closer to impotent last year during the last two months of the season.  Newcomer Drayton Calhoun inherits the starting position after originally signing with LSU.  Calhoun has track sprinter’s speed, and he can take it to the house with just a little daylight.  He should allow the MTSU offense to approach 28-30 points per game this season.

 

The defense must replace the top four tacklers from a year ago, including the top player in the secondary.  While six of the top seven return up front, the secondary will be a major liability even if opposing quarterbacks see more pressure from the Raider pass rush.

 

Middle opens with McNeese State on Thursday, August 30, and the game could have added meaning if Tyrann Mathieu ends transferring there.  The Honey Badger will merit national exposure for this game, and McNeese is talented enough already to compete with and even upset Middle.

 

Team

North Texas Mean Green

               
Head Coach

Dan McCarney

               
Colors

Green and White

               
City

Denton, TX

               
2011 Record              
Conference

4-4

Overall

5-7

               
PiRate Rating

86.0

               
National Rank

105

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

84.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

115

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

5-3

Overall

6-6

 

If you are looking for this year’s Western Kentucky surprise team, then look no further.  Dan McCarney took over a mess in Denton last year, and the Mean Green started to compete like it was 2001-2004 again.  UNT split their eight conference games and even upset Indiana last year. 

 

Another difficult non-conference schedule will keep North Texas from winning seven games like WKU last year, but the Mean Green could actually contend for the SBC title this year.  McCarney did the same thing at Iowa State, twice coming within one last-minute field goal attempt of winning the Big 12 North Division title with the Cyclones.

 

McCarney’s teams are noted for hard-nosed play.  They play it close to the vest and try to limit turnovers.  They were +8 in turnover margin in their five wins last year.

 

Look for the Mean Green to improve their offensive production this year with most of last year’s key contributors returning this year.  The real star of this team is the offensive line, and four starters return.  The one new starter, Cam Feldt, could actually be the best athlete in the line.  He began his career at Arkansas and is the highest-rated player on this roster.

 

In a league noted for offense, to compete for the conference crown, you must have a strong defense, and that may be the one reason why UNT will come up short this season.  Injuries in August to tackle Ryan Boutwell and defensive back Freddie Warner combined with the loss for the season of fine linebacker Michael Stojkovic means UNT will be more green and less mean on this side of the ball.  Still, McCarney has a knack for getting more out of less, and we believe this team can break even overall and contend in conference play.

 

 

Team

South Alabama Jaguars

               
Head Coach

Joey Jones

               
Colors

Red & Blue

               
City

Mobile, AL

               
2011 Record              
Conference

0-0

Overall

6-4 (as FCS Independent)

               
PiRate Rating

73.0

               
National Rank

122

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

78.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

123

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

0-8

Overall

2-11

 

This will be a rough welcome for the Jaguars to FBS play.  The program began playing just three seasons ago, and USA went 7-0 and 10-0 in their first two years playing the likes of Georgia Military Junior College, Edward Waters, Henderson State, and Louisburg Junior College.  Last year, the schedule included games against North Carolina State and Kent State.  The Jags lost to the Wolf Pack 35-13 and to the Golden Flashes 33-25.  USA can compete in their first year in the big leagues, but until they prove they can beat a FBS team, we are picking them to lose most of their games.

 

Head coach Joey Jones has scheduled wisely.  The first two games are winnable, and we expect the Jaguars to start 2-0 with wins over UT-San Antonio and Nicholls State. 

 

C. J. Bennett and Ross Metheny will compete for the starting quarterback job.  Bennett started last year, but Metheny is a transfer from Virginia with FBS starting experience.  The receiving corps is not yet up to FBS standards, so expect the passing game to stall at times.

 

The running attack was not all that strong against last year’s competition, and when you factor in sacks, we expect the Jags to average less than 100 rushing yards per game this year.

 

The defense may not be all that bad, but the stop troops will wear down as the offense sputters.  The Jags will give up 150-175 rushing yards per game, and that will allow opposing offenses to convert a lot of third downs.  The more the defense stays on the field, the better opposing quarterbacks will exploit weaknesses in the secondary coverage.

 

 

Team

Troy Trojans

               
Head Coach

Larry Blakeney

               
Colors

Red and Gray

               
City

Troy, AL

               
2011 Record              
Conference

2-6

Overall

3-9

               
PiRate Rating

83.5

               
National Rank

108

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

91.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

99

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

5-3

Overall

5-7

 

After dominating the Sunbelt for four seasons from 2001 to 2004, North Texas fell to 2-9 in 2005 and never since has competed in the Sunbelt.  Troy nearly dominated from 2006 to 2010, winning or sharing the league title all five seasons.  Last year, the Trojans experienced a North Texas like fall to 3-9.  Wherefore go the Trojans this year?  Are they doomed to repeat the ill-fated Mean Green and continue to decline for the next half-dozen years?  We think not, but we also believe this team has too far to go to get back to the top.

 

It was the offense that really deserted the Trojan faithful last year, as Troy averaged 12 points and almost 75 yards less in 2011 than in 2010.  The defense gave up 465 yards per game and almost 34 points per game, but that was not much weaker than the 2010 team surrendered in an 8-5 season.

 

Troy rushed for just 66 yards per game in conference play, and that stat wasn’t really skewed by quarterback sacks.  The team could not even run against Florida Atlantic!

 

Opponents concentrated on stopping the passing game, and while Troy upped their passing yardage from the year before, the percentage and yards per attempt fell, and turnovers rose.

 

If Troy can get any semblance of a running game going, the passing game could be explosive.  Quarterback Corey Robinson can be as effective as Aplin or Gautier if he gets some help from the running game.  He has the league’s best set of receivers in Eric Thomas, Chandler Worthy, Justin Albert, and B. J. Chitty.  Worthy is a threat to go the distance on any reception.

 

Troy will win once again with offense, but the defense must improve a little or else 2012 will be another long season in Troy.

 

 

Team

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

               
Head Coach

Willie Taggart

               
Colors

Red and White

               
City

Bowling Green, KY

               
2011 Record              
Conference

7-1

Overall

7-5

               
PiRate Rating

92.0

               
National Rank

88

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Rating

94.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Rank

87

 
2012 Prediction

 

Conference

6-2

Overall

7-5

 

Willie Taggart is proving to be as effective as a head coach as his former mentor, Jim Harbaugh.  Taggart helped Harbaugh’s Stanford offenses become dominating on the ground, and he quickly did the same thing in Bowling Green.

 

Last year, WKU was expected to fare little better than the 2-10 of 2010.  We selected them as our surprise team of the conference, and they did not disappoint.  Thanks to a hard-nosed running attack combined with passing to tight ends (recognize the pattern?), the Hilltoppers earned their first winning record since becoming a FBS school.

 

You would expect Western to have to rebuild do to the loss of the fine running back that led the league in rushing by 500 yards over the number two man.  Bobby Rainey leaves Bowling Green as the school’s all-time leading rusher.  He finished last year with almost 1,700 yards and 13 touchdowns.

 

Fret not Hilltopper fans.  Taggart went out and signed perhaps an even better runner.  Anthony Wales is the highest-rated recruit in the league.  Wales may not start immediately, and Taggart might be smart limiting his carries in the first two games.  The Hilltoppers will have no trouble defeating Austin Peay, and they will not compete at Alabama the following week.  By holding him back with limited carries until the third game, WKU could give in-state rival Kentucky some big surprises by making him the feature back in that game.

 

Tight end Jack Doyle has no peer in the SBC.  He returns after leading the team with 52 receptions good for 614 yards.  At 6-6 and more than 250 pounds, it takes two and sometimes three defensive players to bring him down.  He can turn a three yard route into a 15-yard gain.

 

Quarterback Kawaun Jakes returns for his senior season, and he should pass for about 2,000-2,220 yards while running for another 200.  It doesn’t hurt that he has most of his offensive line contributors back, and three holdovers could contend for all league honors.

 

The defense improved by more than eight points per game allowed last year, even though they surrendered about the same amount of yards.  The interior line is going to be much improved with the return of end Quanterus Smith.  Smith led WKU with 11 stops behind the line (second in the league in sacks) and added four quarterback hurries.

 

Mike Linebacker Andrew Jackson registered 17 total tackles for loss last year, while picking up 109 total stops.  Teams cannot run away from him.

 

Western would be our consensus pick to win the SBC title this year, but the Hilltoppers face Louisiana, Florida International, Arkansas State, and Troy on the road.  They will do no better than split these four games, but they should win all four home conference games.

 

Coming Tomorrow, August 18: A look at what’s left of the not so wacky WAC.

August 21, 2010

2010 Southeastern Conference Football Preview

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Go to www.piratings.webs.com where we beat the spread 60.4% in 2009!

 

2010 Southeastern Conference Preview

We close out the conference previews with a look at the biggie.  The SEC has produced the last four national champions and five in the past decade, compared to two from the Big 12, one from the Big Ten, one from the Pac-10, and one from the Big East.  Not since Georgia in 2005 has the SEC Champion not played in the BCS National Championship Game.

We are going to predict this trend ends this season, but not without a lot of controversy.  We believe the SEC Champion, like all the other five BCS Conference champions will lose at least one game.  As we have stated in earlier previews, we believe both Boise State and TCU will win all their games and meet in Glendale for the rubber match bowl game.

One coach finds himself on a hot seat that he may not be able to cool down.  One coach is on a mildly warm seat due to fans that have ridiculously high and impossible standards.  One coach may want to hang it up at the end of this year after many years in the business.  One coach already decided to get out, leaving just before August practices began.  It is possible that four jobs in the elite conference will be available after the season. 

Note: The PiRate Ratings are not meant to be used to predict the outcome of future games.  They are usable only as a basis for the current week’s games.  We do not use these ratings to make our selections.  They are only a starting point.  The predictions given below, as for every college conference and NFL division, are not taken from the ratings themselves.

Predictions

Pos East SEC W-L
1 Florida 7-1 11-2
2 South Carolina 5-3 8-4
3 Georgia 5-3 9-3
4 Kentucky 2-6 6-6
5 Tennessee 1-7 4-8
6 Vanderbilt 0-8 1-11
       
Pos West SEC W-L
1 Alabama 7-1 12-1
2 Auburn 5-3 9-3
3 Arkansas 5-3 9-3
4 L S U 4-4 7-5
5 Ole Miss 4-4 8-4
6 Mississippi State 3-5 6-6

 

SEC Championship Game: Alabama over Florida

 

BCS Bowl (Sugar): Alabama

BCS Bowl: Florida

Capital One Bowl: Auburn

Outback Bowl: Georgia

Cotton Bowl: Arkansas

Chick-fil-A Bowl: South Carolina

Gator Bowl: L S U

Music City Bowl: Mississippi State

Liberty Bowl: Ole Miss

PapaJohns.com Bowl: Kentucky

 

 

Team By Team Breakdown

S E C  East

 

Team

Florida Gators
               
Head Coach Urban Meyer
               
Colors Blue and Orange
               
City Gainesville, FL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 8-0
Overall 13-1
               
PiRate Rating 121.4
               
National Rating 10
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 7-1
Overall 11-2
               
Strengths: QB, RB, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, LB, DB, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Receiver (small weakness)
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Miami (O), South Florida, Appalachian State, @ Florida State
   
Key Games: @ Alabama, LSU, Georgia (n), South Carolina
   
Offense Pred. 28-32 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 15-19 points & 275-300 yards
               
Outlook

The Gators went 13-1 last year, and it was considered a major disappointment.  The team that returned almost every starter from a national championship was expected to go 14-0 and become the next 2001 Miami, 1995 Nebraska, 1971 Nebraska, and 1945 Army in college football.

 

Head Coach Urban Meyer briefly stepped down only to come back a few days later.  Unfortunately, Tim Tebow, Riley Cooper, Aaron Hernandez, Ryan Stamper, Joe Haden, Brandon Spikes, Dustin Doe, and Carlos Dunlap don’t have the option of coming back.  The Gators lost nine players to the NFL.  How can they possibly still be considered the top contender in the SEC East?  Simple: they still have the best overall talent in the division.

 

Quarterback John Brantley completed 36 of 48 passes for 410 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions in mop-up situations last year.  Not a real dual-threat runner like Tebow, he will set up in the pocket and throw downfield.  Remember, Meyer won a national title here with Chris Leak doing the same thing.

 

Brantley has fewer weapons at his disposal than Tebow had.  The loss of Cooper and Hernandez (119-1,811/14) leaves Deonte Thompson as the leading holdover.  Thompson will get help from the speedy Andre DeBose and the big-bodied Carl Moore.  Slotback Chris Rainey caught only 10 passes last year, and he will have to quadruple that mark this year for the Gators to be successful.

 

The running game will need more production from real backs, because Brantley will run much less than Tebow.   Rainey will team with Chris Demps and Emmanuel Moody to carry the load.  Expect the trio to top 1,800 rushing yards this year.

 

The offensive line returns four talented blockers, including all-American center Mike Pouncey and 6-5, 360-pound guard Carl Johnson.

 

Losing three defensive players who were drafted in the 1st two rounds of the NFL Draft and two other players in later rounds, UF will be a little weaker on this side of the ball, but not too much weaker to miss out on a return trip to a BCS Bowl.

 

The Gators have strength at defensive tackle thanks to the return of Omar Hunter and Jaye Howard.  Very few teams will run the ball up the middle against them.  Meyer recruited a lot of grade A d-line talent, and three could see immediate action as true freshmen.  Keep an eye on Ronald Powell and Sharrif Floyd.

 

A.J. Jones is the lone starter returning at linebacker.  Jones plays the run and the pass well, but UF will be weaker in the second line of defense.

 

The secondary will be strong once again with the return of two starters and several talented letterwinners.  Enemy quarterbacks will throw away from cornerback Janoris Jenkins.

 

Florida must play Alabama in the regular season at Tuscaloosa on October 2.  They will probably face the Tide in Atlanta two months later in a rematch game.

Team Georgia Bulldogs
               
Head Coach Mark Richt
               
Colors Red and Black
               
City Athens, GA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 115.5
               
National Rating 23
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: RB, Receiver, Offensive Line ***, Linebacker, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Defensive Line, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: UL-Lafayette, @ Colorado, Idaho State, Georgia Tech
   
Key Games: @ South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida (n), @ Auburn
   
Offense Pred. 27-31 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 22-26 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

It is ridiculous that many Georgia fans want to get rid of Coach Mark Richt, when he just guided the Bulldogs to the most successful decade in their history.  Vince Dooley did not post 10-consecutive seasons as victorious as the decade Richt produced in Athens.  Pay close attention to what happened in Minnesota when Glen Mason was fired.

 

Editorial aside, Georgia has another fine team this season.  10 starters return on the offensive side; the one position that needs to be filled just happens to be at quarterback.  Richt has basically one option here.  Redshirt freshman Aaron Murray has the job from day one, because true freshman Hutson Mason is the only real backup.

 

If Murray is worth his salt as a passer, he will have a lot of weapons at his disposal.  A.J. Green has all-American potential after grabbing 53 passes for 808 yards in an injury-plagued season.  Tavarres King and Orson Charles should both top 40 receptions.  Former quarterback Logan Gray moves to receiver, where he should contribute this year.

 

At running back, Washaun Ealey played in the final nine games and rushed for 717 yards.  Caleb King added 594 yards.  Both have a combination of power and speed and can hit anywhere on the line of scrimmage.

 

The offensive line returns all five starters from last season, and this quintet ranks second nationally to Wisconsin’s line.  Guards Chris Davis and Cordy Glenn make a terrific tandem, and when you throw in center Ben Jones, the Bulldogs will be able to run the ball inside with authority and keep defensive pass rushers from coming up the middle.

 

In the last five seasons, Georgia gave up 16.4, 17.6, 20.2, 24.5, and 25.9 points per game.  This annual deterioration has led to a change at defensive coordinator.  Enter NFL veteran Todd Grantham, and enter the 3-4 defense.

 

We are a bit concerned about the new front three, as nose guard DeAngelo Tyson is not the answer there for a 3-4 front.  Former offensive lineman Justin Anderson may eventually take over in the interior.  At 330 pounds, he is better suited to growing roots over center.

 

If the new defensive line can keep blockers away from the UGa linebackers, the defense will have a chance to improve for the first time in five years.  Watch for Justin Houston to become a fixture in opponents’ backfields.  He could register double figure sacks and 20+ tackles for loss.

 

Brandon Boykin is the only returning starter in the secondary, and there isn’t much experience taking the place of the three departed starters.  Look for the ‘Dogs to give up more passing yards this year.

 

Georgia faced a key game in week two, when they visit South Carolina.  The winner will get a chance to play for the division title later in the season against Florida, while the loser will be out of the race.

Team Kentucky Wildcats
               
Head Coach Joker Phillips
               
Colors Royal Blue and White
               
City Lexington, KY
               
2009 Record              
Conference 2-6
Overall 7-6
               
PiRate Rating 101.9
               
National Rating 55
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 2-6
Overall 6-6
               
Strengths: Receiver, Special Teams, Defensive Back
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Linebacker
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: @ Louisville, Western Kentucky, Akron, Chas. Southern
   
Key Games: @ Ole Miss, Auburn, South Carolina, @ Miss. St., Vandy, @ Tenn.
   
Offense Pred. 24-28 points & 300-325 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

Joker Phillips takes over as head coach in Lexington after directing the Wildcats’ offense.  Kentucky has used intelligent non-conference scheduling to gain bowl eligibility four years in a row.  The trend should continue in Phillips’ first season.

 

This will be a weaker Kentucky team, but the Wildcats will benefit from having the easiest schedule in the league.  They should sweep their four non-SEC foes for the fourth year in a row and win two conference games to make it back to a bowl for the fifth straight year.

 

Phillips has to make a decision at quarterback.  He has senior Mike Hartline and sophomore Morgan Newton as his two main options.  Hartline is a more conservative passer who seldom takes chances.  He’s got a more accurate arm, but he doesn’t have much zip on the ball.  Newton can hum the ball deep and has a quick release, but he doesn’t always put the ball where he aims.  Expect both to play, and redshirt freshman Ryan Mosakowski could see some game time as well.

 

There is another option at quarterback.  Randall Cobb is the Wildcat Offense quarterback, but he is a starting wideout.  Cobb led UK with 39 receptions and 447 yards last year.  He finished second in rushing with 573 yards, and he passed for 89 more.  If the single wing were still in vogue, he would be an all-star tailback.

 

Speaking of tailbacks, Derrick Locke returns after rushing for 907 yards.  Expect Locke to run the ball 200-225 times for more than 1,000 yards this season.

 

Besides the previously mentioned Cobb, Kentucky returns four other receivers that saw considerable action, so whoever ends up in the pocket should have some good targets running routes.

 

The offensive line could be a liability this year, as just one starter returns.  Guard Stuart Hines has all-conference potential, but three of the new starters have seen a lot of action in SEC games.  Don’t expect too many more sacks allowed by this unit.

 

The 2009 UK defense turned out to be outstanding.  Ask Tim Tebow about the pass rush.  This year, the defensive line could even be a bit better.  Ends DeQuin Evans and Taylor Wyndham (the concussion-delivering blow to Tebow) will give the ‘Cats a good pass rush from the outside.  The tackles are not as talented as the ends, and opponents will run the ball up the middle against them.

 

Only one starter returns at linebacker.  Danny Trevathan finished second in tackles last year with 82, and he had five tackles for loss.  Phillips may have some depth issues here, because several expected backups have left.

 

Half of last year’s great secondary returns.  Cornerback Randall Burden intercepted two passes and knocked down eight others.  Safety Winston Guy was an excellent run stuffer, and he broke up five passes.  The pass defense won’t come close to matching last year’s exceptional output (just 48.5% completions allowed), but it will still be quite good.

 

Kentucky has not defeated rival Tennessee since 1984, but we believe this is the season that streak ends.

Team South Carolina Gamecocks
               
Head Coach Steve Spurrier
               
Colors Garnet and Black
               
City Columbia, SC
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 7-6
               
PiRate Rating 121.6
               
National Rating 9
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 8-4
               
Strengths: Running Back, Receiver, Defensive Back
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Southern Miss, Furman, Troy, @ Clemson
   
Key Games: Georgia, @ Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, @ Florida
   
Offense Pred. 26-30 points & 360-380 yards
               
Defense Pred. 18-22 points & 300-325 yards
               
Outlook

It could be now or never for Coach Steve Spurrier in Columbia.  He has enough talent to break through into the top two in the division, if he can get halfway decent production from his quarterbacks.

 

Spurrier tends to eat at his quarterbacks when they don’t play every down like they have the name “Wuerffel” on the back of their jerseys.  He has bad-mouthed two-year starter Stephen Garcia since the end of last season, and it appears he will carry the insults to the opening game.  Garcia passed for 2,862 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, and he scrambled at times when the pocket broke down.  Still, Spurrier is threatening to start true freshman Connor Shaw in the first game.

 

Another true freshman might start from day one and become the best running back the Gamecock’s have had since George Rogers.  Marcus Lattimore is the real deal.  He was the top running back recruit in the nation last year.  Returning starter Kenny Miles and backups Brian Maddox and Jarvis Giles return, so the USC running game may produce the most yards here since Lou Holtz was coaching.

 

The receiving corps welcomes back leading pass catcher Alshon Jeffery, who finished 2009 with 46 receptions for 763 yards and six touchdowns.  He will team with Tori Gurley to form a formidable pair of wideouts.  If tight end Weslye Saunders can improve on his 32 receptions, the Gamecocks are going to be potent on the attack.  Saunders was one of the college stars present at that South Beach agent party, so he could miss some or even all of 2009.

 

The offensive line has played inconsistently the last couple of years, but it should be a team strength this season with four returning starters. 

 

The USC defense gave up just 20 points and 300 yards per game last year, and seven starters return to keep it strong in 2010.  Two starters return to the front four, including all-conference end Cliff Matthews.  Matthews made 47 tackles with seven sacks and three other tackles for loss, and he proved valuable against the pass with three knocked down passes.

 

At linebacker, leading tackler Shaq Wilson returns after making 85 stops last year.  Rodney Paulk returns to the middle linebacker spot after missing two seasons due to injury.  If he is close to 100% after suffering an ACL injury, the Gamecocks will be strong here.

 

The secondary is the strength of the defense.  USC has a top notch pair of cornerbacks in Stephon Gilmore and Chris Culliver.  They broke up 17 passes last year, and they should pick up a couple more interceptions this season.

 

Everything is in place for Spurrier to take USC to the next level.  They have a chance in all eight conference games, as they get to host Alabama and Georgia, and they play Florida in Gainesville in a year where the Gators will have a minor rebuilding season.  If the Gamecocks repeat with a 7-6 season, Spurrier may hang it up.

Team Tennessee Volunteers
               
Head Coach Derek Dooley
               
Colors Orange and White
               
City Knoxville, TN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 7-6
               
PiRate Rating 101.9
               
National Rating 54
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 1-7
Overall 4-8
               
Strengths: Receiver
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Linebacker, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: UT-Martin, Oregon, UAB, @ Memphis
   
Key Games: @LSU, @ Georgia, @ S. Carolina, Ole Miss, @ Vandy, Kentucky
   
Offense Pred. 16-20 points & 275-300 yards
               
Defense Pred. 20-24 points & 300-325 yards
               
Outlook

Welcome to the annual soap opera known as “All My Coaches.”  The Volunteers have their third coach in three seasons and fourth offensive coordinator in four seasons.  Add to this that several players have left and more have suffered injuries, and this is going to be the weakest team on the hill in Knoxville in more than 30 years.

 

The offense starts with a new quarterback that threw for 39 yards in very limited action at Louisville two years ago.  Matt Simms is the son of Phil Simms.  The junior transfer will compete with true freshman Tyler Bray, but whoever winds up as the starter will not come close to matching the stats compiled by departed starter Jonathan Crompton.

 

Three talented receivers will give the new QB a decent chance at having some success against weaker pass defenses.  Wideouts Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore and tight end Luke Stocker teamed up for 115 receptions, 1,609 yards, and 16 touchdowns.  True freshman Justin Hunter could see extensive action.

 

The running game has to start from scratch with the loss of the top two rushers.  Tauren Poole and David Oku are serviceable backs, but neither will threaten to run for 1,000 yards.

 

The weakest unit on the team is the offensive line.  All five starters are gone.  Guard Jarrod Shaw started three games last season, and the rest of this unit has no career starts.

 

This will be the weakest offense at UT since before Doug Dickey’s time as coach in the mid-1960’s.

 

The defense should be better off than the offense, but there are no Reggie White’s or John Henderson’s on this team.  There are also no Eric Berry’s.  Berry finished his career with seven tackles for loss and nine passes defended last season.  The all-American strong safety was the fifth overall pick in the draft.

 

Darren Myles was going to be the new stud of the secondary, but he was dismissed from the team this spring.  Expect opponents to shred this secondary for 200+ passing yards this season.

 

The defensive line took a major hit with injuries, and there will be a problem stopping the run and rushing the passer.  Southern Cal transfer Malik Jackson could see immediate playing time.  Chris Walker will be the lone serious QB sack threat.

 

Tennessee has a similar history to Penn State when it comes to producing linebackers.  They have two fine ones this year who should combine for 100-120 tackles.  LaMarcus Thompson and Nick Reveiz won’t make all-conference teams, but they won’t be liabilities either.

 

Tennessee should win three of their four non-conference games this year, but once conference play begins, the Vols may have to wait to November to get a league win.  Coach Derek Dooley’s first season in Knoxville could produce a 4-8 record.  Since the Vols started playing football in 1902, they have never lost eight games in a season.

Team Vanderbilt Commodores
               
Head Coach Robbie Caldwell
               
Colors Black and Gold
               
City Nashville, TN
               
2009 Record              
Conference 0-8
Overall 2-10
               
PiRate Rating 96.1
               
National Rating 68
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 0-8
Overall 1-11
               
Strengths: Running Back
               
Weaknesses: QB, Receiver, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, LB, Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Northwestern, @ Connecticut, Eastern Mich., Wake Forest
   
Key Games: @ Ole Miss, @ Kentucky, Tennessee
   
Offense Pred. 13-16 points & 275-300 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-26 points & 375-400 yards
               
Outlook

Vanderbilt was supposed to contend for another bowl game last year and maybe win as many as eight games with a veteran squad returning from a seven-win season that included a bowl victory.  Instead, the Commodores suffered through numerous injuries and crashed to a 2-10 season.  The offense could not move the ball on Army much less a conference foe.  Vanderbilt averaged just 8.9 points and 234 yards of offense in conference play, numbers not seen in the SEC since the mid-1960’s.

 

To add insult to injury, Bobby Johnson decided in July that he could take no more of this.  He retired, leaving the job to Robbie Caldwell.  Vanderbilt is a team that must stay healthy to have a chance in the SEC, and immediately after practice began, serious injuries put a major crimp in the offense.  It is going to be a long season in Nashville, and the Commodores are going to be underdogs in all but one game.

 

Larry Smith returns at quarterback after suffering through a sophomore slump season that ended in the first quarter of the ninth game.  He will compete with holdovers Jared Funk and Charlie Goro and junior college transfer Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Aaron Rodgers.  We expect Smith to start the opener with Northwestern, but we wouldn’t be surprised if more than one quarterback played in that game.

 

The running back situation appeared to be a team strength until practice began.  Sophomore Warren Norman rushed for 783 yards as a freshman, while fellow freshman Zac Stacy added 478.  Stacy sprained his MCL in practice and is out for the first couple of games.  Backup backs Kennard Reeves and Wesley Tate (younger brother of Golden Tate) are nursing injuries as well, so depth will be an issue here.

 

The Commodores are rather weak at receiver.  There is not a deep ball threat on the roster, and there is only one consistent possession man.  John Cole led the team with just 36 receptions and 382 yards.  Tight end Brandon Barden finished second with 29 catches for 357 yards.  No receiver had more than one touchdown reception.  Expect another year of struggles through the air.

 

The offensive line lost its one all-conference caliber blocker when tackle James Williams was lost to academic difficulties.  One starter returns to the blocking corps–guard Kyle Fischer.

 

This looks like an offense that will possibly score fewer than 10 points per game in conference play for a second consecutive season.

 

The Vanderbilt defense was decent last year, but the offense forced it to defend too many plays, more than 70 to be exact.  Injuries and graduation will make this side of the ball weaker than last year.  Tackle Adam Smotherman tore his ACL in Spring drills, and he will not be 100% at all this season.  He will probably miss some games as well.  End Theron Kadri will become the sack specialist on this team, but we don’t expect Vanderbilt to top 20 sacks with this defense.

 

Chris Marve is an all-conference talent at middle linebacker after leading the Commodores with 121 tackles last year.  He will have two new partners starting with him in the second line of defense.

 

The back line of defense loses its leading pass defender, but cornerback Casey Hayward returns after intercepting two passes and batting away seven others.

 

We cannot see the Commodores breaking through with a conference victory this season.  Vanderbilt’s non-conference schedule is the toughest of any SEC team.  They face Northwestern, Connecticut, and Wake Forest, and we see these opponents defeating the Commodores in close games.  That leaves an October 9 home game with Eastern Michigan as possibly the only chance to pick up a victory.

S E C  WEST

Team Alabama Crimson Tide
               
Head Coach Nick Saban
               
Colors Crimson and White
               
City Tuscaloosa, AL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 8-0
Overall 14-0
               
PiRate Rating 126.1
               
National Rating 2
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 7-1
Overall 12-1
               
Strengths: Quarterback **, Running Back ***, Defensive Line, Linebacker
               
Weaknesses: Defensive Back
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: San Jose State, Penn State @ Duke, Georgia State
   
Key Games: @ Arkansas, Florida, @ S. Carolina, Auburn
   
Offense Pred. 34-38 points & 400-425 yards
               
Defense Pred. 15-19 points & 275-300 yards
               
Outlook

What can the Tide do for an encore?  They had maybe two tough games in their march to a 14-0 record and national championship.  The had the Heisman Trophy winner as well.  How can a team lose nine starters on their defensive side and still be a legitimate contender for another national championship?

 

That’s simple.  When you have a top five recruiting class three years in a row, you have exceptional talent past your two-deep.  There are players on this team that may see no more than a few snaps of game action per year that could be starting for other bowl teams.

 

Let’s start on offense, where the Tide will be tough to slow down.  The second best running attack in college football starts with the best individual back.  Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram is back after rushing for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns.  He added 32 receptions for 334 yards and three more scores.  Backup Trent Richardson rushed for 751 yards and eight scores, earning 1st Team Freshman All-American honors! 

 

Handing the ball off to this dynamic duo is a quarterback that has never lost a game at the college or high school level.  Greg McElroy didn’t get much publicity with Ingram running roughshod over opponents, but he completed better than 60% of his passes for 2,508 yards and 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions.  He could top 3,000 yards this year.

 

McElroy’s receivers are not as talented as the running backs, but they are still quite talented in their own right.  Julio Jones led the Tide with 43 catches, even though he missed the better part of seven games.  Marquis Maze is a deep threat in his own right, and he will see mostly single coverage.

 

The offensive line returns three starters but has several talented newcomers, including redshirt freshman tackle D.J. Fluker, who has all-conference written all over his chest.

 

The defense has some major reloading to do.  13 of the top 16 tacklers are gone, and that number could become 14 of 16. Middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower and strong safety Mark Baron are the only two returning starters, and Hightower only started four times before going down for the season with an ACL injury. 

 

Baron could be a 1st Team all-American this year.  He led the SEC with 18 passes defended (7 Int./11 PBU).  There is very little experience joining him in the secondary, but there is a lot of raw talent waiting for Coach Nick Saban to mold into the next tough pass defense.

 

Sophomore Nico Johnson made the SEC All-Freshman team last year in limited action, and he will team with Hightower to form a splendid pair at linebacker.

 

The front line could have another major blow.  End Marcell Dareus, a sack machine, may be declared ineligible for part or all of the season for his attendance at the South Beach agent party.

 

Alabama will give up more points and yards this year, but they will still finish in the top 20 in the nation in total defense.

 

The schedule is really tough for all SEC West teams this year, as every team could easily be bowl eligible.  Throw in a game with Florida, and it doesn’t look possible for a third consecutive undefeated regular season.  Call it a one-loss year and trip to the Sugar Bowl.

Team Arkansas Razorbacks
               
Head Coach Bobby Petrino
               
Colors Cardinal and White
               
City Fayetteville, AR
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 124.9
               
National Rating 4
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: Quarterback ***, Receiver
               
Weaknesses: Defensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Tenn. Tech, UL-Monroe, Texas A&M (n), UTEP
   
Key Games: @ Georgia, Alabama, @ Auburn, Ole Miss, @ S.Car, LSU
   
Offense Pred. 40-44 points and 450-475 yards
               
Defense Pred. 24-28 points & 375-400 yards
               
Outlook

Arkansas has half of the best team in the nation.  Their offense is unrivaled by any team.  They may not finish atop the total offense and scoring offense statistics, but the teams that beat them out won’t play SEC defenses.  If the Razorbacks played a CUSA schedule, they might average close to 55 points per game this year.

 

Ryan Mallett is the best quarterback in the SEC and one of the five best in the nation.  Last year, he passed for 3,624 yards and 30 touchdowns versus just seven interceptions.  His 55.8% completion rate was lower than others, because Mallett tends to throw deeper passes.  He averaged nine yards per attempt and more than 16 yards per completion.

 

The vertical passing game works so well, because Arkansas has the best group of receivers in the SEC.  Three Hog pass catchers can burn a secondary for a quick six on a go route.  Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, and Joe Adams teamed up for 118 receptions, 2,143 yards (18.2 avg), and 19 touchdowns.  Tight end D.J. Williams added 32 receptions, and he can take a pass over the middle and go the distance.

 

Pass defenders will have to cede territory in their alignments, and that will make the running game have more room to run when backs break free from the line.  Arkansas doesn’t run the ball much, and they have little need to do so, but when they do, expect the backs to improve on last season’s average per attempt.  Ronnie Wingo and Broderick Green should average a combined five yards per rush this year.

 

The offensive line returns four starters from last year, and this group will give Mallett ample time to locate his deadly receivers.

 

The defense is a different kettle of fish.  Arkansas gave up 25 points and 400 yards per game last year, giving up 52 points to Georgia. 

 

Two starters return to the defensive line, but neither was a star.  The two new starters saw extensive time last year, so this unit will be about as mediocre as it was last year.  Look for true freshman Bryan Jones to see immediate action in the trenches.

 

The Hogs will be improved at linebacker.  Two starters, the numbers one and three tacklers, return.  Jerry Franklin collected 94 tackles and played admirably against both the run and pass.  Jerico Nelson was a better run-stopper than pass defender.  New starter Freddy Burton started seven games last year, so he can be considered a half-starter.

 

The defensive backfield is the weak spot of the defense.  The Razorbacks gave up far too many big plays last year.  Arkansas gave up 248 passing yards per game last year.  With three starters returning, there should be some improvement.  However, none of them intercepted a pass.

 

Expect another entertaining season out of Coach Bobby Petrino’s Razorbacks.  We believe they will average more than 40 points per game.  We also think they may be the team that upsets Alabama.  However, they have too many holes on defense to run the table.  Call it a second or third place finish in the tough West.  Jerry Jones would love for his alma mater to play in his stadium at bowl season.

Team Auburn Tigers
               
Head Coach Gene Chizik
               
Colors Navy and Burnt Orange
               
City Auburn, AL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 117.8
               
National Rating 19
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-3
               
Strengths: Receiver, Offensive Line, Linebacker
               
Weaknesses: Defensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Arkansas State, Clemson, La.-Monroe, Chattanooga
   
Key Games: S. Carolina, Arkansas, LSU, @ Ole Miss, Georgia, @ Alabama
   
Offense Pred. 28-32 points & 400-425 yards
               
Defense Pred. 22-26 points & 350-375 yards
               
Outlook

What a difference a year made!  In their last season with Tommy Tuberville in charge of this program, Auburn averaged 17 points and 300 yards per game in offense and gave up 18 points and 320 yards.  In their first season under Gene Chizik, and with offensive guru Gus Malzahn’s offense being implemented, Auburn’s offense improved to 33 points and 430 yards per game.  Unfortunately, their defense weakened to 28 points and 375 yards allowed.

 

The end result was an 8-5 record that included a bowl win over Northwestern.  In year number two, Chizik has the pieces in place to win more games and even possibly challenge for the SEC West division title.

 

Former Florida signee Cam Newton takes over at quarterback this year.  He is a dual-threat that could add to the running game, but he won’t pass for as many yards as this team had in 2009.

 

Newton’s excellent running ability will help take some heat off the backs.  Mario Fannin and Onterio McCalebb combined for just 850 subbing for departed star Ben Tate, and we believe they will team for 1,600 or more yards.  True freshman Michael Dyer is a tank with quickness, and he could take away some of the snaps from the other two.

 

Newton has an outstanding receiver to aim for in Darvin Adams, who caught 60 passes for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns.  Terrell Zachery added 26 receptions for 477 yards and five scores.  Fannin also proved to be a valuable weapon out of the backfield, taking 42 passes.  Look out for true freshman Trovon Reed, who could actually supplant one of the starters.

 

Four starting offensive linemen return to provide excellent pass protection and to open holes for the running backs.  Center Ryan Pugh and tackle Lee Ziemba are both stars.

 

Look for Auburn to rush for 225-250 yards and pass for 150-175 yards.  It looks like another big year from the offense.

 

Auburn returns half of their starting defensive line, but the loss of Antonio Coleman makes this unit considerable weaker.

 

Linebacker is a major asset with the return of all three starters.  Josh Bynes, Craig Stevens, and Daren Bates finished one-two-and four in tackles last year.  Expect Jonathan Evans to see considerable time here as well and possibly crack the starting lineup.

 

Neiko Thorpe has all-conference potential at cornerback.  He intercepted two passes and broke up nine others last year.  He joins two safeties with past starting experience, so the pass defense should be a little tighter this season.

 

Auburn hosts both LSU and Arkansas, the two teams they will compete with for second place in the SEC West.  We give them the edge over the other two.

 

Team Louisiana State Tigers
               
Head Coach Les Miles
               
Colors Royal Purple and Gold
               
City Baton Rouge, LA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-3
Overall 9-4
               
PiRate Rating 113.0
               
National Rating 28
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 7-5
               
Strengths: Receiver, Special Teams
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Linebacker
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: North Carolina (n), West Virginia, McNeese St., UL-Monroe
   
Key Games: @ Florida, @ Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, @ Arkansas
   
Offense Pred. 20-24 points & 300-325 yards
               
Defense Pred. 18-22 points & 290-310 yards
               
Outlook

The Tigers were a major disappointment last year, finishing 9-4 and fielding very little offense.  Coach Les Miles is on a very hot seat, and we believe this will be his last season in Baton Rouge, because the Tigers lost too much talent to improve on last year’s record.

 

Six starters return on offense, but those starters did not shine.  Quarterback Jordan Jefferson completed 61.5% of his passes for 2,166 yards with a TD/Int. ratio of 17/7.  However, Jefferson (and backup QB Jarrett Lee) took 37 sacks because of difficulty reading defensive coverage.  We don’t see the quarterbacking position being all that much improved this season.

 

Two receivers caught almost 56% of all completed passes last year, and one is no longer here.  Terrence Toliver caught 53 passes for 735 yards.  Former quarterback Russell Shepard has moved to receiver full-time and will start immediately.

 

The running game averaged 123 yards per game (skewed by all the sacks).  Take away the four non-conference breathers, and the Tigers averaged just 97 rushing yards per game.  The top two runners are gone, leaving a major hole at this position. 

 

The offensive line lost its top two blockers, so even with three starters returning, we expect little or no improvement here.

 

Opposing defenses will beg LSU to run the ball and take away the passing lanes.  Jefferson will have a hard time of it this season, and we expect the offense to boggle down yet again.

 

It was defense that won most of LSU’s games last year.  Only four starters return to this side of the ball.  Four of the top five tacklers must be replaced.

 

Only one starter returns to the defensive line.  Tackle Lazarius Levingston made eight tackles for loss and batted away four passes.  Drake Nevis will team with Levingston to make a great tandem at tackle and prevent many gains up the middle.  The news isn’t so rosy at end, where there isn’t a real proven pass rusher present.

 

Mike linebacker Kelvin Sheppard led the Tigers with 110 tackles, including 8 ½ for loss.  Expected starter Ryan Baker will be out until October, so the Tigers will have some concerns in their first four games.

 

The secondary is the strongest unit on the entire team, and it returns just two starters.  Cornerback Patrick Peterson is one of the league’s top three players at his position.  He picked off two passes but batted away 13 others.

 

LSU’s defense will still be powerful, but we doubt they will hold opponents to 16 points per game like last year.  The Tigers will struggle to score enough points week after week, but they will still win more than they lose.  But, it won’t be enough to save Miles’ job.  Three years ago, after supposedly being in line to take over the Michigan job, he chose to stay at LSU.  In a strange twist of fate, if Rich Rodriguez were to have a big year at Michigan and this job came open, he might be a candidate here.

Team Ole Miss Rebels
               
Head Coach Houston Nutt
               
Colors Cardinal and Navy
               
City Oxford, MS
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 9-4
               
PiRate Rating 108.3
               
National Rating 41
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 8-4
               
Strengths: Quarterback, Running Back, Defensive Back
               
Weaknesses: Offensive Line
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Jacksonville St., @ Tulane, Fresno State, UL-Lafayette
   
Key Games: Kentucky, @ Arkansas, Auburn, @ Tennessee, @ LSU, Miss. St.
   
Offense Pred. 31-34 points & 410-430 yards
               
Defense Pred. 18-22 points & 325-350 yards
               
Outlook

Brett Favre left Mississippi to return to the Minnesota Vikings.  Ole Miss has their own version of Favre, so to speak.  They will rent a quarterback for the season with hopes of winning a conference championship.  Enter Jeremiah Masoli, who was booted off the Oregon Ducks’ team for two infractions.  Masoli would have been a Heisman Trophy candidate at OU.  He led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl last season after running for 668 yards and 13 touchdowns and passing for 2,147 yards and 15 touchdowns.

 

The Rebels lost a great all-purpose back in Dexter McCluster.  He topped 1,100 yards last year.  Brandon Bolden returns after running for 614 yards.  Keep an eye of Enrique Davis.  The former highly sought after back has floundered so far, but the junior could be getting ready to come into his own.

 

The Rebels lost their top two receivers from last year, and that may keep Masoli from putting up passing stats like he did at Oregon.  Markeith Summers is the leading returnee with 394 yards on 17 receptions.

 

The offensive line lost three multi-year starters, but both tackles return.  Expect a small step backward in pass protection, but Masoli is much more mobile than last year’s quarterback, Jevan Snead.

 

The defense is in a little better shape with the return of six starters.  Three starters return up front, and the Rebels should be strong against the run and also have another good pass rush.  Jerrelle Powe could make the 1st Team All-SEC list after coming up with 12 tackles for losses last year.

 

Linebackers Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker return to form a good mix in the second line of defense.  Cornell is a better run-stopper and Walker is a better pass defender.

 

The secondary will take a step back with just one starter returning.  Safety Johnny Brown finished second with 81 tackles last year.

 

Coach Houston Nutt’s Rebels benefit from a great schedule.  Ole Miss could easily open 5-0 and should be no worse than 4-1.  The Rebels then get an off week to prepare for their October 16 game at Alabama.  We believe Ole Miss will win eight regular season games for the third consecutive year.

Team Mississippi State Bulldogs
               
Head Coach Dan Mullen
               
Colors Maroon and White
               
City Starkville, MS
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 5-7
               
PiRate Rating 110.8
               
National Rating 36
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 3-5
Overall 6-6
               
Strengths: Defensive Line
               
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Receiver
               
Schedule              
Non-Conf: Memphis, Alcorn State, @ Houston, U A B
   
Key Games: Kentucky, Arkansas, @ Ole Miss
   
Offense Pred. 24-28 points & 375-400 yards
               
Defense Pred. 23-27 points & 360-380 yards
               
Outlook

Coach Dan Mullen’s first year in Starkville almost produced bowl eligibility when the Bulldogs had been picked to possibly lose 10 games.  If not for a mix-up at the line of scrimmage at the end of the LSU game, Miss. State would have gone 6-6 instead of 5-7.

 

We think the Bulldogs will get that extra win this year and earn a trip back to a bowl for the first time in three years.  Seven starters return on both sides of the ball.

 

One position that must be replaced is at quarterback.  Chris Relf has a rifle arm, and he is mobile.  He should add another dimension to the Bulldog offense.  He also should cut down on the number of interceptions State quarterbacks threw last season (17).  Tyler Russell, a redshirt freshman, should also see some playing time this year.

 

There isn’t a lot of talent at wide receiver, but the top two pass catchers do return.  Wideout Chad Bumphis and Tight end Marcus Green have some breakaway potential, but they won’t remind anybody of Mardye McDole.

 

Replacing Anthony Dixon at running back is not possible with the running backs on the roster; Vick Ballard is expected to get the lion’s share of the load, but the roster is really thin behind him.

 

The offensive line returns four experienced starters, and they should give Relf room to run and time to pass.  We would not be surprised if Relf led the Maroons in rushing yards while passing for close to 2,000 yards.

 

The biggest loss on defense may have been defensive coordinator Carl Torbush.  Now, the Bulldogs will have their third DC in three years.  Chris Wilson from Oklahoma and Manny Diaz from Middle Tennessee will share the responsibility.

 

Mississippi State’s defense will rely on a talented defensive line to set the tone.  End Pernell McPhee is one of the best in the league.  He comes off a year in which he had five sacks, 12 total tackles for loss, and four knocked down passes.  New starter Sean Ferguson will give State a strong end tandem.

 

The top two returning tacklers return to the second line of defense.  Linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright combined for 157 stops a year ago.

 

The Bulldogs have a terrific trio of starting defensive backs returning this year.  Safeties Charles Mitchell and Johnathan Banks both intercepted four passes last year; cornerback Corey Broomfield had six!

 

Look for State to improve on this side of the ball and allow fewer points this year.  We believe it will bring them one more win and bowl eligibility.

Coming Next Week: The initial PiRate, Mean, and Biased Ratings for the NFL, and the entire first week of the college football season 

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